Sometimes you have to stop and take note. Sometimes chance was on your side.
It was a Thursday night in March. A cold, dank, wet and miserable evening with little to redeem it. I had an evening class that I was running. I enjoyed it. I was taking an adult education class in the History Of Rock Music. It was very successful. I had a very passionate group and we were having fun. It was the second time I had run the course and both times had proved popular. It involved me playing a lot of very loud Rock Music and talking about where it had come from and why it was so important. The course lasted two hours with a break in the middle of twenty minutes where we had a drink and an informal chat. As a group we had become quite close. There was an easy atmosphere. But even so, it was tiring. I’d already had a long day teaching. I was running low on energy.
I had two of my boys at my school. They were both teenagers – one was sixteen and the other fourteen. Both old enough to be a bit surly and uncommunicative. Dad was definitely not cool and they certainly did not dig my choice in music. They endured the journey back and forth.
Instead of running them home on the night of my class I left them round at their Grandma’s to do their homework and watch a bit of telly. It was good for both them and their Grandma, who I suspect was very lonely, though I know they watched a lot more telly that either doing homework or talking to their Grandma. I’m still sure she appreciated the company.
That week I was talking about one of my favourite eras of 1960’s West Coast Acid Rock. The featured bands were Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. It went well and I was able to play them a number of my favourite tracks.
After the course I picked the boys up and headed home. We lived twelve miles away out in the countryside. It involved driving down a number of small, unlit country two lane country roads. But I was used to that.
My older boy sat in the front and the younger one was in the back. The journey took half an hour.
As we approached the Golf Course on the narrow road there was a gravel pit with a sharp bend. I slowed right down to negotiate that bend. There was a nice looking house on that corner that I really liked, though I was put off by the location. It was right on that bend fronting directly on to the road. The cars passed right in front of it. Still I admired it every time I went by. It was my type of house.
Coming out of the bend I had slowed to twenty and was beginning to accelerate. My foot was pressing down on the accelerator and we must have been doing about thirty miles an hour. The road was slick with rain and glistening wet. Coming towards me were the headlights of another car. I noted that it was going very fast but that was fairly usual. I paid it no mind. A lot of cars travelled at speed on those little country roads. I did not pay it too much mind.
As the car got close to us it seemed to twitch. From that point on everything happened in a split second. I remember three separate images. One – the fast approaching car twitching. Two the car veering across in front of us. Three the car sideways in front of us.
It was so fast that it did not appear as a moving image – just three still shots. The driver must have seen the bend approaching and hit the brakes too hard. He lost it on the wet road and spun. If we hadn’t been in that exact spot he would have simply spun off the road and probably overturned on the golf course. Unfortunately we were in exactly the wrong place.
I had always imagined that I had the reflexes to avoid accidents; that in the event of a potential crash I could take avoiding action.
That is not the case.
The approaching car had been driven by a young teenager out with his friends. They were doing about 100 MPH. I was doing 30 MPH. the combined speed was 130 MPH. I did not have time to react. I did not even have time to take my foot off of the accelerator and apply the brake. It was instantaneous.
The oncoming car spun sideways straight into the front of us.
It was like being in an explosion.
I must have blacked out for a while. When I can round the front end of my car had gone. The whole bonnet and engine had been pushed back on us. The steering wheel was back to the seat. The other car had been stopped dead and pushed on its side in the road in front of us..
There was a few seconds of eerie quiet while the world came back into focus. I could hear hot metal ticking. I looked round at my older son. His face was covered in blood where it had impacted the windscreen but he was alive – dazed but alive. There were screams starting up from the other car. I tried to look round to the back seat. My other son was in the seat well. He had, unbeknown to me, unbuckled his seat-belt and been dozing on the back seat. The impact had thrown him forward into the front seats. He started screaming in pain.
My older son looked completely dazed. I looked down and saw his legs. The engine had come back at him and both his femurs were snapped and forced up in Vs in front of him. I was horrified. The lower part of his legs were invisible. The engine was right back to the seat. I could not see how they were there. I imagined them severed just below the knees.
I stupidly asked him if he was alright. He mumbled. I tried to talk to him. He was barely conscious. I ignored the screams from the back. From a cursory look I did not think there was anything life-threatening. My fear was for my son in the front seat. He looked in grave danger.
I tried to kick the door open on my side. It was not budging. The accident had bent the two front doors into Vs. It would not budge. The door was jammed. I could not get enough traction to force it. The steering wheel was in the way. I felt a wave of panic. I had this vision of the car going up in flames with us trapped in it.
Faces began to appear, peering in at us with terrified expressions. I could smell petrol and hear the tick of hot metal. At any moment I thought the car could go up with a big wooomph. I frantically kicked at the door. Eventually someone helped wrench it open and I somehow got out.
I clambered in the back to check my younger son. He was still screaming but I could not see anything major wrong. I went round the front to my older son. He was barely conscious. I talked to him and tried desperately to keep him conscious. He mumbled. I was sure we were losing him. There was nothing I could do.
A crowd had gathered. A nearby pub had heard the crash. They told me later that the noise had been like an explosion. They had rushed out to see what had happened.
The emergency services arrived quickly. The first on the scene was one of our GPs. He quickly got organised, checked out the youngest and then moved on to the oldest. He quickly set up a saline drip and administered some pain relief. The danger was shock. He was losing blood from those snapped femurs. At that point in time, unbeknown to me, he only had a 10% chance of living. But I could sense that. I was frantic.
My wife arrived. A friend of the family lived in the house nearby and had been one of the first on the scene. He’d recognised us and rung her. She was distraught. we hugged.
The Fire Brigade and then the ambulance arrived. They extracted my youngest son from the wreck, got him into the ambulance, administered pain relief and rushed him away. My older son was more difficult. He was trapped. The Fire Brigade set about cutting the roof off the car so that they could get to him. The medical crew took over the drip and his medical needs.
I was so helpless and frustrated. There was nothing I could do. One of the people from the pub took hold of me and assured me that it was OK. That the professionals were in charge. I had to stay out the way and leave it to them. That was the hardest thing. But I know he was right.
I went down the road picking up my Beefheart albums that had been strewn out of the car onto the road. They were all undamaged. Anything to occupy my mind while they worked on my son.
Eventually, after an hour of cutting, they got him out and into the ambulance. Then I joined him and we rushed off with Blue lights and sirens to the hospital. The driver of the other car was in that ambulance too.
I held my son’s hand while they worked on him.
We all lived.
My younger son had suffered a dislocated hip, one of the most painful injuries, a broken leg and a broken hand.
My older son had suffered two broken femurs, a broken hand and glass embedded in his face.
I suffered bruises, cuts, a broken tooth and a sliced eye-lid. I walked away from it. After a night in hospital I was released. My wife came to pick me up. I insisted we went to the garage where our car had been taken. I walked in and the man went ashen. He had to sit down. He told me that he collected car from wrecks all over the county but had never seen anyone live from a wreck that bad, let alone walk away.
I sat in that car in that yard strewn with other wrecks. I went through everything that had happened in my head. I put together every last detail and the sequence of events. I should have noticed my younger son had taken his seat-belt off and was lying on the back seat. I should have told him to put it on. But would that have saved him from injury or made it worse? Could I have swerved? Could I have braked? Should I have reacted differently? How had the impact affected each one of us? How had I not been impaled by that steering wheel? What had happened to each of my sons? Only when I had pieced together exactly what had happened and reassured myself that there had been nothing I could have done to prevent it did I get out of the car and go home.
I was lucky. The impact had been off centre and I had been thrown around the steering wheel. If it had been plumb on I would have been crushed by that steering wheel. Instead I had been thrown around it and lived to tell the tale. We were all lucky. If the impact had been completely square we would probably all have died. The slight angle saved us. It threw the force off to the side.
Both my sons lived and made full recoveries. Both spent weeks in hospital on traction. My oldest was in for three months with both legs pinned and suspended on weights. The long term effects will no doubt come out later.
I have never trusted other drivers since. I flinch a lot.
Many years later I used to give a talk to the 6th Form who were just starting to learn to drive. I told them about my accident as a warning for them to drive safely. Except that telling it made it so real to me that I was so emotionally affected I could not speak, my throat seized up, and found, to my shock, that my eyes were welling up with tears. I had to walk out.